1994 was the year that New York City reclaimed the throne of hip-hop, with the help of Nas and The Notorious B.I.G. But it was a duo that didn’t hail from the Big Apple that would contribute to the revival of East Coast rap.
Producer DJ Premiere, from Houston, and rapper Guru, from Boston, combined to form Gang Starr, one of hip-hop’s most unique and innovative rapper-producer combos. Through the early 90s’, the duo released several solid projects, but none as groundbreaking as 1994’s “Hard to Earn.”
Gangstarr was, and still is, more appreciated by the industry and the underground world than the mainstream. For as acclaimed as DJ Premiere is, he is seldom given the proper due he is deserved. Pair that with the late Guru’s laid back demeanor and it’s easy to see why the two aren’t more decorated. There were a ton of more charismatic emcees parading across television screens in 1994, but Gang Starr’s music speaks for itself.
Although the duo’s prior projects were enjoyable, “Hard to Earn” is Gang Starr’s best work. Rather than enlist several chart-topping rappers for features, the duo elected to stay inside the Gang Starr Foundation. Members of the Gang Starr Foundation include Group Home, Jeru the Damaja and Big Shug, who serve as the sole features on the album.
It was apparent that staying true to your self was the Gang Starr motto, explaining the albums hit single “Mass Appeal.” Premiere lays down his signature sample-heavy jazz-infused beat and Guru attacks “posers” who will conform to achieve success.
Lines like “And you’d be happy as hell to get a record deal, maybe your soul you’ll sell to have mass appeal” speak to Guru’s unapologetic demeanor.
Premiere showcases his ability to take elements of jazz to create enjoyable beats throughout, especially with the lead single “DWYCK”.
Nice-N-Smooth make an appearance, as emcee Greg Nice drops one of the most memorable verses in hip-hop history.
Lines like “Ooh-la-la ah oui oui I say Muhammad Ali, you say Cassius Clay. I say butter, you say Parkay” are sure to take many listeners down memory lane.
With all due respect to the late Guru, it is Premiere who carries the album, with his production. “Speak Ya Clout” featuring Lil Dap (Group Home) and Jeru the Damaja is the perfect example of Premiere’s wizardry.
As Jeru summons Lil Dap to rap, the entire beat changes, as Dap flows over the cool sounds of brass instruments and a serious bass line.
Aside from the melodic jazz samples, Premiere’s calling is his sampling for hooks. Jay-Z once said “You made it a hot line, I made it a hot song” – which sums up Premiere the producer. One liner’s from artists like Da Youngstas, EPMD, and Run-DMC are used for catchy hooks and bridges.
Despite Guru’s monotone voice and syrupy flow, his lyrics are fresh and song topics relatable. He takes time to tell point out how important an emcees sound is on “Mostly tha Voice”.
Guru scares off wannabe emcees with weak voices with lines like “a lot of rappers got flavor, and some got skills but if your voice ain’t dope than you need to CHILL”.
Despite being 17 tracks long, Hard to Earn remains fresh throughout, with Premiere’s eccentric beats and braggadocio rhymes.
The weak spot of the album is “F.A.L.A,” as Big Shug ruins a great beat with a below-average verse. It’s a shame that Nas and Mc Eiht appear on the skit for “Aiiight Chill…” but don’t drop a verse on the album.
Nevertheless, Guru and Premiere cement their respective spots on an album whose sales don’t reflect its quality and uniqueness.